There’s a certain part of State Highway 16, heading into Auckland from Te Atatū Peninsula, where the Whau River parts the land on each side of the road. For a second it feels like you are skidding along the water, everything around you low and flat. At night time, the land-locked streetlights around you disappear and the stars above you shine a little brighter, as if the water has opened up and swallowed the earth. You are surrounded by smoothness on all sides – sometimes blue, sometimes grey, sometimes black – and for a brief moment there is nothing else. Then as soon as it happens, it disappears. You are back on the semi-industrial, semi-desolate West Auckland motorway.
The sudden beauty of that fleeting moment always takes my breath away. I look forward to it every time my family cart ourselves from the suburbs to the city, where my father worked, then studied so he could find better work, then did not find better work.
My family first came from China to New Zealand in 1995. My parents were engineers and owned businesses. They gave up a promising life in booming Shenzhen for the relative quiet and smallness of Te Atatū South. At six years old I itch to go into the city – a familiar symbol of opportunity and excitement. For my parents, Auckland City indeed held work opportunities, but it also carried an aftertaste of people clambering to pay the rent. Life is easier here, they assure me, as they work harder than ever.
On the three-second long opening on State Highway 16 we pass through a barrier. It takes my parents from their fantasy of a quiet life with their daughter, to the reality of the grind. We travel to the city in the morning, Auckland’s skyline shining against the grey-blue sky. At night we drive from glittering city lights into the dark. The sky seems bigger in the suburbs, without the skyscrapers to hold it up. It has its own kind of gravity.
When I am ten years old, my parents move to New Plymouth to pursue the dairy life. I hate everything about it. Red faced, arms crossed, I refuse to help with the packing. Mum and dad work around the small ball of fury, patient as ever.
At my new school we sing this song called ‘Surf Highway 45’. We sing it ad nauseum. I find it odd, the pride people in New Plymouth feel for their little town. Always talking about the mountain, and the sea, and the mountain, and the sea.
The sky seems bigger in the suburbs, without the skyscrapers to hold it up. It has its own kind of gravity.
Situated on the West Coast of the North Island, New Plymouth reaches out towards the Tasman on a big puku, pregnant with the perfectly circular outline of Mt Taranaki. The infamous Surf Highway outlines the region, but it’s fairly inland for a coastal road. Instead of breathtaking views, you pass through unremarkable bush and suburban patches of grass. The odd black sand beach signals it’s time to stop, go for a walk, get some lunch. Unless you’re specifically visiting one of the towns along the coast, most people take the shorter route through State Highway 3.
Maybe it’s the relative remoteness that made it so treasured by everyone there. This place is even smaller than West Auckland, with even less to hold up the sky. I feel stifled by that sky. All that blue, all that green, all those cars in line for school pickup; the smallness of it all. Isolation has a weight to it, and my parents were being continually pulled.
After 17 years in New Zealand, we visit China for the first time. We arrive in Wuhan, Hubei, my father’s hometown. We drive to my uncle’s house, next to the university that he teaches at. The streets are dusty; toddler boys and wild pups play, seemingly unafraid of the traffic beside them.
There is always construction happening in China. Here, time is compressed – the old villages mere miles from new skyscrapers that erupt from the earth, pushing the heavens away. As we turn down the road leading to the university, the asphalt disappears to reveal the orange earth below.
Here in this land, I’ve never felt more foreign – an imposter who speaks the language, but has not earned the language.
All the car tyres are lined with bright orange clay. Everything is covered in it. The open ground is a foot lower than the sidewalk, and the car dips dramatically as we drive into the roadworks area. Funny that in order to escape the earth, we must first get closer to it.
Ancient mythologies tell us that humans were sculpted from clay. I recall this fact as I compare my flesh with the ground beneath. Here in this land, I am tangata whenua. This is the earth that birthed me. Yet I’ve never felt more foreign – an imposter who speaks the language, but has not earned the language.
I sneeze. It’s dusty.
After a childhood of staring at the California sun through our old TV, I am finally feeling it on my face. It’s 2012, and I am on a road trip. The light is warm as it cascades down my arms, and I notice how much softer it is than the sun back home.
The US-101 runs through San Francisco, from its iconic red bridge to the featureless plains of San Jose, carving a valley through tech billionaire backyards on the way. As we head south, the city turns to suburbs and then to desert. Before you know it you’re surrounded by glaring concrete roads two shades too light, with nothing more but cars and palm trees and billboards for divorce lawyers ahead.
A huge anti-Chinese-steel billboard looms over an overly-intricate overpass system. The Chinese flag floods the background, text in thick conspiracy font yelling, This highway was built with Chinese steel! Save American jobs! Call your representative! Staring back at me, a mirror. But before I can dwell for too long, the billboard is fast shrinking behind us. Warm blue skies envelope us on all sides.
I like it here. It feels familiar. I recognise the streets in this foreign country more than the planes of my own face.
On the road, I am weightless and unbound. It’s the ultimate magic trick – to be able to disappear anything by shrinking it into the rear view mirror.
You must plant roots, my father tells me, after ripping himself from the orange earth and chasing a dream across continents and oceans. There is always greener grass, bluer skies. When someone asks, ‘Where are you from?’, I perform my usual mental calculus. There is no answer I can give that is completely true.
It’s the ultimate magic trick – to be able to disappear anything by shrinking it into the rear view mirror.
You must plant roots, my father tells me, but these places are planting roots into me. They tug and pull, warping the concrete and bursting through the cracks, making me vulnerable, permeable. Maybe it’s genetic, but escape is all I know.
But the world is round, after all, so there’s only so far I can go before I start coming back again.
There’s this small bend on State Highway 1, right as you’re about to arrive at Wellington, where the city reveals itself to you. I think it’s my favourite bit of road in all the world.
Before this you would’ve been driving for ages – past Paekākāriki’s steep hills, saturated with green and yellow. Past a brand new motorway, already packed with traffic. Past the trains that you wish you were taking instead. It feels like you’ve been arriving for so long when – finally – the road does that familiar bend, weave and dip. A gentle turn to the right and you emerge, triumphant, into the blue. Smooth skies, rough oceans, then – Wellington city.
No matter what the weather is like, the city seems to glisten and sparkle. I love this road. It’s breathtaking. A homecoming.